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Posted on Nov 6, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Vietnam: Years of Glory and Grief

By Wild Bill Wilder

The Country Itself

Nestled in the corner of Southeast Asia, the Republic of Vietnam faces east to the China Sea. Its neighbors to the west are Laos, Cambodia and China. It takes the form of a sea horse. The Vietnamese prefer to think of its shape as that of an inverted dragon, its head pointing to the south, its mouth open to devour the foreign intruder. The landmass is 67,293 square miles. 

As to climate, it depends on where you are. To the south is the Mekong Delta, a very flat low-lying area of extensive rice paddies and swamps. It is cut through with rivers, streams and canals of varying widths. Most areas of the Delta are impassable to vehicles and nearly as bad on foot. Usual native mode of travel is by boat or on the back of a water buffalo. This area was the primary responsibility of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces, plus specialized US army and navy troops, called the “Riverine,” or “Brown River” force.


To the north of the delta is the Piedmont, an area of gently rolling hills and broad plains. Here were located the notorious sanctuaries and mammoth supply depots of the Viet Cong (the South Vietnamese Communist forces) and the North Vietnamese Army. It was in this area that most of the “Search and Destroy” missions took place. The terrain is ideal for armor. Many major engagements were fought in this part of the country.

The Meking Delta as seen from space.  Picture by NASA

Continuing in a northern path, the next area above the Piedmont is the Mountain Plateau. It extends over much of west-central South Vietnam to the Cambodian border. It is a rolling country with a mixture of dense forest and wide open plains, with scattered tea and coffee plantations. Malaria is endemic here and the population is rather sparse.

Then, further to the northeast, looming above the plateau region are the Central Highlands, dominated by the Annamite Mountain chain. This group of mountains has an average width of 90 miles and some of the higher elevations reached more than 5,000 feet (a mile in the air). The mountains are extremely rugged and heavily forested.

They constitute an effective divide between the coast and the middle Mekong valley in southern Laos and eastern Cambodia, which borders North Vietnam. It was in this area that the DMZ or Demilitarized Zone was established. It was supposedly a neutral buffer between the two countries, but was the scene of heavy fighting. This was the area assigned to the US Marine Corps.

The temperature varies on the region, from an average of 93 degrees in the south (this means that the usual high temperature was well over 100 degrees and very humid), to the middle 70s in the north. The seasons varied between the wet and the dry, though it was hardly ever dry in Vietnam. The wet seasons occur in the winter months to the north and in the summer months in the piedmont and Mekong Delta to the south. Average rainfall is very heavy, up to over 100 inches annually in some areas.

Wildlife is abundant, including many exotic and deadly creatures, and some of the better known, such as tigers and elephants. Poisonous insects and reptiles abounded. Particularly deadly was the viper known as the “two-step.” After a bite from this slithering fiend, a man would take two steps and die. The terrain, wildlife and climate were more than enough to kill a man, without even taking into account a relentless, cruel enemy. It was an entirely different world to the American soldier.

A person who was born, lived and died in Vietnam for many centuries knew only an atmosphere of war. The country had been at war for hundreds of years. After World War II, when the Japanese army had been expelled, France sought to retain its colonial control of what was then Indochina. Rising communist (called the Viet Minh) resistance, personified by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, were hard at work to see the French defeated and removed from their country.

Thus, after the arduous years of conflict with the Japanese dominating their county, the French seemingly had returned to do the same. Finding themselves moving from the control of one foreign power to that of another, the Communists were determined to outlast the French. The victory of the Marxist philosophy in China and other areas of Asia was a significant boost to the Viet Minh.

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1 Comment

  1. The Armchair General needs to get off his butt and do some research into the realities of the true Vietnam war.